Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

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In the age of the Gilead Regime, American society is restructured according fundamentalist, pseudo-Biblical law. Women cannot own property, cannot work outside the home, cannot choose their husbands or even choose not to marry at all. Women are vessels only, sacred and abused, venerated and reviled, valuable only if their wombs are viable and their spirits broken. This is the world in which an anonymous “handmaid” of the near future is set. Like thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of women across the country, she was seized from her former life, separated from her young daughter, conditioned through violence and indoctrination to submit, then placed in the home of an influential “Commander” and his wife for the sole purpose of producing a child. A Handmaid’s Tale is the story of her daily life, of her introspection, of the bruises inflicted on a young woman’s soul as it beats itself to death against the bars of its cage.

I have tried to read books by the Crazy Great Margaret Atwood before, giving up on all of them because of the jarring, despondent, acidic tone of her narrators. Perhaps because I listened to this book instead of reading it, and perhaps because it was read by the wonderful and versatile Claire Danes herself, I succeeded in finishing. Though I’ll give it four out of five stars, I can’t say I loved the book. I can’t argue with the quality and experience of the writing. I can’t deny the ingenuity of the world Atwood created or the piercingly effective pathos of the book. But unlike my experience with The Sparrow last week, this book left me empty instead of full. It left me a little less hopeful about people and society at large and it made me hate men, which is not the healthiest place for me to live.

I will say that there were a few shining moments of authenticity and insight that elicited my signature “humph” (not unlike the sound I imagine I’d make if I were kicked in the stomach). The narrator’s musings on nightfall, on ignorance, on fear, and on the female body… nothing short of brilliant. But, I look for hints of redemption and hope in every story, no matter how desperate or dark. And, try as I might, I just could not find those things here.

In fact, I found myself dwelling on one of the narrator’s mantras as I pushed through to the end:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

Book Review: The Sparrow

“Kinda spooky, ain’t it. Hell of a lot of coincidences. Like we say back home, when you find a turtle settin’ on top of a fencepost, you can be pretty damn sure he didn’t get there on his own.”

Russell, Mary Doria (2008-05-27). The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series) (pp. 121-122). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Father Emilio Sandoz of the Society of Jesus has never considered himself to be a mystic or a saint. His faith is not founded in a “feeling” about God, or even in any kind of love for Him. Sandoz was attracted to the centeredness, the morality of the faith as a mere boy, when he was rescued from the slums of La Perla by a Texan Jesuit priest with a penchant for swearing and an eye for diamonds in the rough.

So when first contact is made with an alien world in the neighboring galaxy of Alpha Centauri, and that first contact comes in the form of lovely, wistful, transcendent music, Father Sandoz is astounded and amused and intrigued. But when he and each of his closest friends turn out to have the precise skill sets required to make the journey out to this new world, he is shaken. And when, against all possible odds, Father Sandoz and those dearest to his heart land on that far away alien Garden of Eden just eighteen short months later, he is transported. For the first time, he feels, he has encountered and fallen in love with the Living God.

But crossing languages, cultures, and species is a treacherous business. As missionaries throughout the millennia of human history have learned, the cost of leading the vanguard of discovery can be very, very high. How will a fledgling faith hold up in the face of loss and suffering and despair? Can we love a God who takes away as much as He gives, who is neither simple, predictable, or safe?

Mary Doria Russell accomplished in her debut, award-winning novel what I thought was impossible in the modern age. She married the foremost theories of medicine and technology with one of the oldest and most rigidly structured religious faiths. She took atheist and Jesuit characters and treated each with the same honest affection, bound them together as a family unit, and then dissected them in a ruthless pursuit of literally “universal” truths. She did not shy away from a single charged, political question. She looked the reader in the face as she led us to an abyss we all recognize, but work very hard to ignore.

I have a new favorite book, folks. And I am challenged, once again, to expand my own view of what’s possible to achieve in fiction.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

There is a silence which follows Kote the innkeeper. The root of the silence is in the stories of Kote’s youth, when he was known as Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Kingkiller, Re’ Lar Kvothe of the Arcanum. He is finally willing to tell his story, from his childhood days in a troupe of traveling troubadours, to the death of his childhood and his struggles at the University; even the tale of his one great love. He’ll tell it all, now that the renowned Chronicler is here and ready with his pen. But the silence still haunts Kvothe’s every step, death still lingers on the doorstep, and dark, treacherous hints of magic are beginning to seep into Kvothe’s little backwoods town.
Patrick Rothfuss has been hailed as a world builder to rival the grand master Tolkien himself. My first exposure to the Kingkiller Chronicles lived up to those rumors. Languages, cultures, histories, and religious traditions flow through this book like a rain-gorged river. In the dedication, Rothfuss thanks his mother for teaching him the love of story, and his father for teaching him to take the time to do things well. When it comes to the creativity and depth of this fantasy series, Rothfuss must be acknowledged as a crazy great.

That being said, this book was a struggle for me, from beginning to end. Rather than argue with the loud protests of many fellow readers whom I hold in the highest respect, I’m going to put my ardent dislike of this book down to a matter of interpretation and personal taste. Rothfuss did indeed take the time to build his story very carefully, although I could have done with a few less redundant descriptions and cliché euphemisms (a sigh should only “deflate” a character once, not three times in a single scene). But the real crux of my problem with Kvothe as a character and Rothfuss’ choice of narrative style was the myopic, pompous, exclusive tone that ran rampant throughout. (Before you turn red in the face and start stabbing your keyboard to decry this less than positive reader response, please refer back to the disclaimer at the beginning of this paragraph.)

I will give one example of my complaint before I leave this alone and move on to other reads. Ok, two examples.

Toward the end of the book (no spoilers here), Kvothe opens the case of an instrument so that it can “feel a little sun on its strings”. He goes on to tell the reader that he doesn’t expect anyone who isn’t a true musician to understand why he did this. I scoffed aloud. It would have been so simple a thing, the most minute of shifts in the semantics, for the narrator to express this same sentiment with an air of inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness. He could have said, for example, “Anyone who has had a long and intimate relationship with a musical instrument will understand.”

If this was a one-time choice of phrasing, I could be quite legitimately accused of nitpicking. But of course, it wasn’t. I got so fed up with the words “I don’t expect you to understand” by the end of this book, I considered making it a drinking game. But then, I’ve got responsibilities to tend to and taking that many shots in a given day cannot be good for one’s health.

In addition to the grating hubris of the narrator, the character Kvothe was a quintessential “Gary Stu”.

A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu or Marty Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.

See full article here.

Kvothe is a wunderkind from the very start: supernaturally intelligent and mature for his age, blessed not only with survival skills most eleven year olds have never even heard of, but also with a knack for acting, music, languages, dialects, horse taming… Oh, and he knows EVERYTHING. Any time any question in any field of study or social etiquette or street wisdom arises, this kid knows the answer. Every. Time. The only people who don’t like him are either ignorant or straight up two dimensional bad guys. He’s the guy the ladies love and the haters love to hate.

Ok I’m done. So sorry guys. Maybe I’ve grown cynical in my middle age, but this was just not for me.

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I feel like I’ve just run a marathon.

Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of eight short stories, all written between 1990 and the present day, by a software engineer working in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington.

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The first story in this series, “Tower of Babylon”, caught me up and tumbled me head over heels like a sudden breaking wave. All the stories that followed, while they certainly could never be called disappointments, felt more like the gentle surf leftover after the initial swell, carrying me back up to shore.

That’s the best I can do, folks, to explain the impact this cornerstone of science fiction has had on my views of Story, the craft of writing, and science fiction as a genre. One story, Chiang told entirely without dialogue. His characters spoke, to themselves and to one another, but he explained those exchanges rather than writing them out. This normally unacceptable approach completely escaped my attention until I’d nearly reached the end of the story. Another short was a collection of monologues. Like reading a scattered collection of interviews without hearing the questioning voice of the interviewer. Still another story employed the passive voice so often, I actually stopped mid-story and started over from the beginning, unable to believe he was getting away with that basic of a faux-pas in the art of writing fiction.

Rule-breaking writing styles aside, Ted Chiang’s stories ring with thoughtfulness, with intention, in exactly the way I hope my own stories will. He does not shy away from the hard, offensive questions that plague our culture and he does not pretend to believe other than he does for the sake of political correctness. And since he couches it all in tales of miles-high towers and parthenogenic experimentation and the advent of the super-intelligent human and student-led movements for calliagnosia, you just sort of absorb his ideas into your subconscious before you realize what’s happened.

Genius.

Mr. Chiang, please quit your day job and write more. For all our sakes.

Book Review: The Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

 What a great title. What a great cover. What a great premise!

What. a pointless. book.

In her latest book, The Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock attempts to explore the hearts and minds of three women.   Antonia, Toni, and Toniah, women of the 15th, 21st, and 22nd centuries, wander through parallel lives, each burdened by a tragic past. Each woman (aged 11, 15, and 30ish) strives to find her place in a world which is largely indifferent to her hopes, to her needs, to her hidden heartbreaks. 

That’s it. No need to warn of spoilers, because nothing of substance happens to any one of these characters. From the beginning of this book to the end, these women do not learn or grow or change. There were so many opportunities to demonstrate and to speculate on the varying paths of women in three very different centuries. But no.  

I struggled from the beginning (only very rarely can I stomach stories told in the present tense) and by the abrupt and hopelessly existential conclusion I was exhausted. The pacing could not have been slower. The end results for each character could not have been less climactic.

Charnock did take an admirable amount of time researching for the glaringly obvious theme of this book: 15th century Italian Renaissance Art.  But instead of enriching the story, all the data and pedantic lessons on color and perspective and art history only weighed down an already cumbersome plot. Normally, I love stories set in a richly detailed history. But, I learned a valuable lesson from this experienced author: don’t study something that’s new to you in order to write a story about it. Write what you know. Write what’s natural to you and second nature, so that you can be the insider who invites intrepid explorers into a world of intimately familiar detail. Otherwise, you’ll write like a museum guide and put your readers to sleep.

Book Review: The Magical Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

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Marie Kondo, a Japanese career “tidier”, has released upon the world her personal expertise in keeping your home “tidy”, once and for all. The KonMari method is based on Kondo’s experiences both personal (apparently, she’s been tidying since she was first laid in her crib) and professional (as an organizing consultant, she has a waitlist of 3 months). From how to fold your t-shirts and roll your socks (for GOD’S sake, don’t ball them up like miserable little poppies!), to how to part with those keepsakes your ancestors are demanding that you keep forever, Kondo leaves no throw pillow unturned. She doesn’t just organize your stuff, she thins it out to include only those things which give you joy.

Despite the alien-feeling Asian philosophy and the narrow view of the world presented in this book, I absolutely love the result it has had in my own home. I’m a serial purger (thanks in large part to my darling dad, who’d show up with a trash bag and tell us we could keep three stuffed animals. Three). I figured I had this whole clean out, organize, tidy up business pretty much handled. But Kondo taught me a lot. I not only learned some nifty organizing principles that had simply never occurred to me before, I also learned the freedom and exhilaration of letting go of anything and everything that does not bring me joy. I enjoy the things I’ve chosen to keep more. I see them more because they aren’t hidden behind the clutter. I use them more because my home is organized so that I don’t forget what I own. I know where every single thing is in my house. Literally. Not least of our life changes, we’ve thrown out and donated upwards of thirty bags of stuff!

I strongly recommend this book to tenacious tidiers and hopeless hoarders alike. It’s a gem.

Book Review: The Five Times I Met Myself by James Rubart

Not too many mid-life crises come with adventures in lucid dreaming, tantamount to time travel. 52 year-old Brock enjoys and suffers the rare experience of playing out alternate timelines in his life, based on a series of pivotal choices. It seems an impossible turn of events, but then, Brock is not dealing with the disappointments and regrets of life on his own. As a man of faith, his first and last thoughts run to the promises of the Christian faith. That cornerstone anchors and guides him through an unbelievable journey of self-discovery and painful transformation.

Despite the compelling premise, this book was a struggle for me. To all appearances, I meet more than one of the intended markers for the book’s audience (educated, church-going, middle-aged, Christian), but I failed utterly to connect with the characters. Details that did not matter to me even the littlest bit (like the particular brand and style of one character’s putter) crowded out the details which would have actually kept me interested in the story (like the particular “lucid dreaming techniques” employed by the lead character).

It is entirely possible that the challenges I faced in finishing this novel were of my own making. It seems other readers sailed through these pages of mostly dialogue and introspection, rapt and fully satisfied. But for me, the dialogue was painfully stilted, which was rough since it made up so much of the book. Almost all exposition took place in conversations of the infamous style known as, “As you know, Bob“. And while every novel absolutely does not need to be a thriller, this one lacked any truly consequential conflict.

In short, not my favorite.

 

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

It’s perhaps more laudable to simply keep heading out into the world, than always tilting to leave one’s mark on it.

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Sixteen year-old Fan had no intention of sparking a movement on the day she left the SuperCorp run city of B-More for the untamed “counties” of a post-apocalyptic United States. Or, at least, we don’t think she did. She set out in search of a boy she loved. He was taken from her, secreted away like a small animal in the clutches of a bird of prey, and the ripples of his disappearance faded too quickly as the community of B-more fought to maintain normalcy, productivity, harmony. So Fan left, navigating the treacherous counties, folding open the stories of those she met, diving the murky seas of high society life in affluent charter villages. And everywhere she went, Fan catalyzed quiet revolutions. Shifts in perspective. Blossoms of hope and fire for change. As for Fan herself, she had eyes only for the road ahead, for the honor paid to lives lost and gained, for the future.

This delicately woven story illuminated Asian culture in a way I didn’t know was possible. As a Korean American, Chang-rae Lee sees the world from the perspective of a third-culture kid: one foot in Asian culture, one in Western, not fully belonging to either. It may have been this background that equipped him so well to tell the dystopian tale of Chinese workers in a post-apocalyptic US. Who else, after all, would have thought to make the narrative voice speak as “we”, the voice of a community? What really brought this novel home, was his mastery of language, of how to weave life into each page and draw the delicate strings of theme and character through to the final page.

I loved this book. It surprised and affirmed and challenged and overwhelmed me. It made me revisit my own writing, strive to raise it to a higher standard. It taught me to understand and love Asian culture and my own “third-culture kidness” more deeply.

After reading On Such a Full Sea, I’ve added every one of Chang-rae Lee’s books to my list of books to be read.

I highly recommend that you do the same.

Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Well, Neil Gaiman has done it again.

Trigger Warning is an eerie, irreverent, occasionally shocking bouquet of absolutely wonderful stories and poems. He took his title from the psychological term which has grown so popular of late. A “trigger warning” is a caution to any passersby that the contents of the upcoming experience could remind them of past traumas, deep fears, and generally unsafe places. That’s a pretty accurate picture of what it’s like to wander through the stories of Mr. Gaiman’s imagination.

I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? 

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My first exposure to Gaiman was through some of his films (Coraline, Stardust, the wonderful, delightful, totally original Mirrormask, etc.) and I was not surprised to find that I loved his books even more than the darkly whimsical movies that came from them. Trigger Warning made me stop in my tracks and say “whoa…” out loud more than once. It has made me dream of wandering through the gray, misty landscape of the Isle of Skye. I’ve been lost in the stark, burnt out remains of the Lunar Labyrinth. And I now listen to the howls of wolves very differently.

The short stories and poems of this collection varied widely in length and style, but Gaiman’s signature lilt of melancholy amusement and morbid beauty ran throughout. A few, like “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” and “Feminine Endings”, left me a little more wary of the weird, wide world. Still, not a single story left me disappointed.  

I always recommend Neil Gaiman. He’s not for children, mostly, or for the faint of spirit. But if you’re willing, if you’re able, he will lead you to places in the realm of Faerie that will press new perspectives upon you, for better or for worse. And he’ll do it with inimitable style.

Other titles I’ve read and can recommend by Neil Gaiman:

I’ll have a review coming soon on Anansi Boys!